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Samantha Clemens, The Spectrum
Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, second from left, and St. George Mayor Daniel McArthur, third from left, attend the opening ceremony for the new St. George Municipal Airport, about five miles away from the city, on Wednesday.

ST. GEORGE — St. George is celebrating what it hopes will be the beginning of a new era of economic expansion. The city's new airport opened Wednesday.

This airport has been in the planning stages for about 20 years and a lot of people were wondering if it was going to get off the ground, especially in the economic down turn, but now this airport is ready for business.

Ceremonies were held to mark the new airport. It cost roughly $160 million, with $123 million from the federal government. The airport is built about five miles away from St. George in a completely new area to the southeast of the city. All that land gives a lot more room for the airport, which used to be on top of a bluff in St. George.

Now more types of jets, like the 737, can land in St. George. It also means more destinations. Already flights to Los Angeles will begin sometime next month and more cities could soon be a part of where St. George can fly in and out of.

"It's a miracle it really happened, in this day and age, in this kind of an economy, and this kind of government politics and everything," said St. George Mayor Daniel McArthur. "We're fortunate to be opening the only green field airport in the United States. It's a great day for us."

And a lot of residents wanted to be a part of that day. About 1,000, if not more, came for the grand opening.

As far as the old airport, the last flight coming into that area is going to happen sometime between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

The new airport will provide an economic shot in the arm, not just for Washington County, but for the entire region.

Before the official dedication of the airport, several thousand people packed the Dixie Convention Center to hear about the future economic benefits the airport will bring. The expectations are high.

"This is like the next stage for St. George, because now it gives us the opportunity to go after companies that we couldn't go after," said Gary Esplin, St. George city manager. "It gives us a presence in competitions where we never had a chance before."

The airport is five times larger than the old one. The 9,500-foot runway now makes it possible for jets to fly in and out of St. George, which was impossible at the old airport. This will impact Salt Lake City International Airport as well as other airports.

Skywest Airlines, based in St. George, has already announced daily jet service to Salt Lake International.

Larger capacity planes will bring more tourists, more business people to southern Utah. And, in the years ahead, other airlines may put St. George on their schedules.

"So we're looking at that and looking at marketing in the future," McArthur said. "But this is the beginning. Today is a beginning of a whole new future for economic development and travel for our citizens."

The airport will also be a magnet in another way. There are thousands of acres of land surrounding it, ready for commercial development, which is good for Dixie and for the entire state as well.

"It'll all add to the economic growth and expansion that's taking place," Gov. Gary Herbert said. "This is part of the synergism that's taking place all over the state of Utah."

e-mail: acabrero@desnews.com; kmccord@desnews.com